Getting sick on the road isn't fun, but it's something that all travellers will have to deal with at one time or another. I've been seriously ill more than a half a dozen times while travelling, including hospitalization for stomach infections, respiratory illness and the dreaded Chikungunya virus in Grenada, so I consider myself a bit of an expert.
When you fall ill on the road, there are many things that you should be thinking about, not the least of which is how you intend to get better. In this article, we'll cover some of the essential steps to help you properly deal with travel sickness so that you can better prepare yourself and cure yourself without wasting too much precious travel time!
Before You Go
Before you leave on a big trip, you should be prepared for any sicknesses or injuries that may occur.
This may sound crazy, but I don't always travel with insurance. If I'm going to live in an apartment in Mexico which is 5 kilometers from a world-class hospital with very affordable health care, I'm not going to pay for insurance. But if I'm travelling to the middle of the Amazon Jungle, hiking high in the Himalayas, or trekking deep into rural Africa, I'm going to be sure I'm covered for everything under the sun.
Generally with travel insurance, you'll have to pay for the treatments up front and you'll be reimbursed after submitting your receipts. Sometimes there is a deductible that is more than the treatments provided, so make sure you know exactly how much it will cost you before going through your insurance company.
We personally use World Nomads and we find them to have the best service and easiest application process.
The biggest reason to have travel insurance is in the event that you need to be flown out of country for medical reasons. These flights are outrageously expensive, but your travel insurance should cover them and you shouldn't have to pay out-of-pocket.
Tip: shop around! Don't just accept the first quote you receive. Check with your travel agent, home insurance provider, credit card company and a private operator. Read the fine print to make sure you're comparing 'apples to apples'.
Know The Region
Do your research. Know where clinics and hospitals are located and be aware of what kind of medical care you can expect before you go. Use the Global iHi Clinic Search Tool to find a hospital or clinic in each place you'll be visiting.
Get Shots & Medication
For some parts of the world, you will need to have specific vaccinations just to enter the borders. No matter where you're travelling, be sure to visit your local travel clinic before leaving to ensure that you're aware of any potential dangers, and that you're properly vaccinated for your trip.
If you're travelling to an area with a high risk of malaria, make sure you have the proper medication. You can pick up antimalarial tablets at most travel clinics around the world. Check to see if the pills are covered by your government health care. In Canada, Manulife Insurance should cover the cost of these pills depending on your level of coverage.
Be Realistic About Your Health Needs
If you have a pre-existing condition or you need special care while you're on the road, make sure that you'll have access to it for the duration of your trip. If you're asthmatic, make sure you have enough inhalers and that you're always close to a qualified medical facility. If you have diabetes, be sure that you have the proper medications that will last you for your entire trip.
It's important for all travellers to be smart about their trip planning, but if you have serious medical conditions, you'll have to put some extra time into your planning process. Travel insurance will likely cost you more than those with no health issues, but it's especially important that you have adequate coverage while you're on the road.
On The Road
Now that you've taken the proper precautions before leaving, you'll be better suited to deal with an illness or injury while on the road. If something does happen and you need to be hospitalized, there are some questions you'll want to ask yourself so that you can handle the situation logically.
Is Your Trip Compromised?
When you fall ill, this is the first thing you should think about. Is the sickness or injury so bad that you have to cancel your trip? Of course, having to go home to get fixed up is probably the last thing you want to do, so if you're extremely ill or injured, it's important that you head to the best clinic / hospital in the area to seek treatment and a valid diagnosis. In many cases, it's simply a matter of taking some medicine and carrying on with your travels.
If you know that you're not in an area that has adequate medical care, you should immediately call your travel insurance provider and talk about your options. If your condition is bad and getting worse, you may have to be air-lifted to a hospital and for this, you'll want to have your travel insurance cover the costs!
Solo vs Couple vs Friend
If you're travelling as a couple, you're in luck. You'll have someone who will stick by your side, no matter what. Solo travellers are going to have some difficulty dealing with the illness, but that is why they should lean on others around them for help. The hotel staff and other travellers should be willing to help you get the proper care you need.
If you're travelling with a friend, there is a whole new dynamic that may arise. Will your friend stay with you or continue on travelling? You don't want to have your illness ruin someone else's trip. Although your friend may feel the need to stay with you, it may be best to have him or her get you to a hospital and then continue on with their holiday. You don't want to foster any resentment later on. Tell your friend to continue and you can meet up later.
Where's The Nearest Clinic?
If you feel that the nearby medical institutions will be sufficient to mend your ailment and you won't need to fly home, then the next thing you should do is find out where the best clinic is nearby. Sometimes you'll be far from proper medical care and if you're truly in pain or can't keep yourself hydrated, this is a very scary position to be in.
When I was in Malawi, I came down with a horrible intestinal infection and I could barely move. All of the clinics in the area were understaffed and overflowing with patients. My only option was to hop on the back of a motorcycle and ride over bumpy roads for two hours to an Irish clinic in the next town.
Despite the fact that riding on a motorbike was the last thing I wanted to do, it was a sacrifice that needed to be made and once I reached the clinic, I was properly treated.
Ask locals for help and make sure that those around you are aware of your condition so that they can check on you, bring you water and help you with transportation to proper medical facilities.
What Are Foreign Clinics Like?
This entirely depends on which country you're in. There are times when you may feel like the clinic is a more dangerous place than your secluded hotel room. Waiting amongst a group of equally sick people doesn't always seem like the proper way to heal, but it's important that you tough it out and visit a doctor.
When you do see the doctor, you'll also have to deal with some levels of a language barrier, but in my experience the well-educated doctors around the world generally have at least a basic understanding of English. If your doctor is unable to communicate with you, be sure to ask around and find somebody who can translate for you.
Not all hospitals overseas are bad! There are hundreds of excellent medical facilities around the world with highly qualified doctors and nurses. There may be some differences from your hospitals at home, but often times the medical care overseas is just as good as it is in Canada.
Healing On The Road
It's amazing how fast your body can heal, especially when you want to get back on the road and continue your trip. After visiting the hospital, you'll want to take it easy until your body regains its energy and health, but once you're able to walk around, there are plenty of services that can help you get back to 100%.
Pharmacies around the world seem to be much better stocked and more accessible than those in Canada. In some places you can even get morphine over the counter! Now, while I wouldn't recommend getting hooked on methamphetamines over a broken finger, it's good to know that local pharmacists will be able to help you deal with the pain and mend your body so you don't have to return to the hospital again and again.
Whatever medication or treatment you are given, make sure that you follow the best practices. Ask the doctor, nurse or pharmacist exactly what you need to do to get better and follow their directions perfectly. If there is a language barrier, find someone who can translate for you.
Medical Care For Retirees
If you're a Canadian planning to retire abroad, you're going to want to price out expat travel insurance vs normal travel insurance vs the local health care where you plan to retire. As mentioned earlier, in many countries the cost of a doctor visit is so low, that you may not need to have top-notch insurance when you're just living and enjoying retirement abroad.
During long absences from Canada, your provincial health care may expire. This means that you will no longer be eligible for regular travel insurance and you will have to apply for Expat Insurance. Visit ServiceCanada.gc.ca for more information about travelling and living abroad.
If you're planning to retire in Mexico, you may just find that there is great health care for very affordable prices so you may not need expensive insurance.
Be Smart, Travel Smart, Have Fun
While it is important to prepare and be diligent when it comes to travel, there's no need to worry too much about it. Get yourself a good travel insurance policy and explore the world with peace of mind, knowing that you're covered for anything that may come your way. If you have any questions about getting sick abroad, leave a comment below and we'll do our best to answer.
Happy and healthy travels!
Nick Wharton is one half of the couple behind Goats On The Road, and the bi-weekly travel column on CreditWalk. Their website is designed to show others how to turn their travels into a lifestyle. Masters at making money online and on the road, they've been travelling since 2008 and have explored some of the least visited places on earth, finding adventure wherever they go.
Have you ever suffered an injury or medical scare while travelling?
Did you return home or heal on the road? Comment below!
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